The reality of slavery today – Your food, your clothes, your technology, and sometimes your sexual services.
Slavery has been a part of human history ever since the dawn of civilisation. It dates back 10,000 years to Mesopotamia. Throughout the history of slavery, female slaves have been called upon for sexual services. This sexual exploitation of women is nothing new. In ancient Sparta and Athens, there was widespread dependence on slave labour. Similarly the practice of slavery carried onto Rome, and slaves were prevalent in the Middle Ages. Then came the Transatlantic Slave Trade, inaugurated by the Portuguese, followed by the Spanish. Ultimately this led to the Abolitionist movement that still carries on today. In the early 1900s, the Danish, British, and America made the slave trade illegal. However slave trading and slavery itself continued profusely. Most contemporary economically developed societies have been built on the profits of slave labour.
Today we observe the International Day for the Abolition of Slavery. It has been 208 years since the Transatlantic Slave Trade was abolished. However slavery remains part of modern society.
It is believed that there are more slaves today then in any other time in human history. The estimate sits generally between 20 to 30 million. Unlike in the past, slavery is no longer in the open, it is illicit and underground, therefore more difficult to monitor and address. This means that estimates of the numbers of slaves are never completely accurate, and in fact figures could be far higher or potentially lower. What does underpin modern slavery is the economic structures of free market, free trade, economic deregulation, flow of information and goods, in a growing borderless world. These attributes reflect modern neoliberal economic ideology, which sees the devaluation of social welfare, health care and equal education: the value of the pursuit of high profit with the lowest costs. Neoliberalism abandons ethics: it is a kind of attitude that encourages the commodification of anything with potential profit, regardless of underlying circumstances, which may be inherently against our basic rights.
Shockingly, this sort of attitude is pervasive now more than ever. Recently, in response to the landmark decisions of Amnesty International to endorse the complete decriminalization of sex work, the head of Human Rights Watch, Kenneth Roth, tweeted “All want to end poverty, but in the meantime why deny poor women the option of voluntary sex work?” This statement reinforces assumptions that all sex workers are poor, all sex workers do it for a quick buck, poverty and sex work are synonymous, and that poor and voluntary can coexist. Importantly this message purports that we should seek the most profitable economic avenue in any situation, without acknowledging the structural problems that create these situations. Where are the questions relating to why, since the emergence of slavery 10,000 years ago, have women been consistently used for forced sexual labour? And why now, are we pursuing policies of abandonment of healthcare and social welfare, which effect women disproportionately, and increase their vulnerability to be trafficked into sexual slavery? Given that we have seen the effects it has on women. Then again, many know that war often leads to violence against women, political turmoil, economic disengagement, and the overall halt of development, however we continue to go to war regardless.
So what are we doing wrong in our efforts to combat slavery? Everyday citizens in privileged positions are not taking enough time to manage their slavery product consumption. Awareness is not widespread enough. Public pressure is not big enough. We have an incredible power collectively as consumers to alter the profits of transnational corporations. If we refuse to consume products that are made by forced labour, or if we pursue the education of purchasers of sex so they may be more ethical in their “consumption”, we raise the profile of the people who are being exploited. If we go for a beach holiday in Thailand, we put pressure on our fellow tourists to understand their impact, their participation in negative tourism (such as sex tourism). But importantly, we promote the conversation, never allow people to forget about the continued slavery in the world, and pursue ideals of sustainable and equitable development.
It is in Australia, and it’s throughout the whole world. Don’t forget. Start the conversation.
The wind is howling through the trees,
I hear a dog barking from a distance,
The whistle of a stream train,
I’m at a station, but which station?
There are no signs no lights.
I am alone, cold and in the dark
A train appears pulling in the dark
Slowly, smoke and stream covering the platform.
As the old train leaves there are people everywhere, women, children and men of all ages.
All bustling around going about their business,
People yelling to buy their produce, fruit & veg, old wares and second hand clothes.
I move towards a stall, though my feet don’t move,
I’m stuck, people walk through me like I’m not even there.
I am here, I yell, no one hears
The train I thought, I hear the same dog bark in the distance
But somehow it sounds closer this time,
The whistle, of the train it’s loud and seems to go on forever.
As it pulls in, I’m left alone again.
Cold, wet and in the dark.
I turn and a young child approaches me
And whispers in my ear
It’s your choice to stay alone.
I am 28 years old and have lived with an addiction for more than half my life. I have had a long way of recovery and still wouldn’t call myself “fully recovered”. I believe that it needs to be acknowledged, that recovery (what ever it may be from – substance abuse, behaviour etc.) is a long and very bumpy journey. I have learnt that (re) lapses are a normal and part of recovery, so I don’t beat my self up anymore if it happens. I have learned to appreciate and focus on what I have accomplished and how far I have come. I have also realised, that my addiction is nothing that I need to be ashamed of. I used to hate, ignore and hide this part of myself for many years and wouldn’t tell anyone. I only now realised I didn’t take myself seriously and accept myself for who I was.
Recovered (or not) the addiction-fragment of myself will always be part of who I am. However, I was also able to see things differently because of it and I believe it gave me the ability to be insightful and understanding. I might even be able to now give to or help someone going through the same because of these experiences lived. I also acknowledge, that asking for help is okay and in fact a very big first step (which often is not easy, asking for help is never easy), but help is out there. I further realised that I was very lucky to have support during this long journey and this is something I will never take for granted. It was also great being able to know people going through the same experiences as I do, because no one really understands until they have been there too. However it is still on me to do it (recovery) and that I am the only one responsible for it. The most important lesson I have learnt is definitely to never give up and believe that recovery is possible (even in my case).
Something short about the sex industry
What irritates me the most when talking about the sex industry or sex workers is the stigma towards this industry and these individuals. No one ever talks, when talking about sex workers, about just women (considering that the majority of sex workers are women). No one ever talks about these women who have so many strengths, skills and experiences, women who may be studying, women who may be mothers and are caring for their children and women who are simply working to earn money (just not in a mainstream industry) like everyone else. I wonder, when this will ever change and when sex workers will bee seen as nothing different but individuals.
I am general a very shy person and never had much self esteem at all. Which I believe are the two main reasons I never had many friends, but I have had a few very good and special ones.
I moved to Australia about two years ago and realised that it is hard to find friends if you are new somewhere and especially don’t really have anywhere to “belong” – I no longer went to university and initially didn’t have a job, both places where one could meet other people. It was/is also hard to meet new people and make new friends in a world where everyone is busy all the time (including myself) and I often felt (and still feel) isolated despite having a partner who is, if I am honest to myself, my only real good friend here; I often miss “my girls”. I hardly ever talk about feeling “lonely” but I believe that through conversations with others at and outside of Project Respect that others feel like I do, (I know that this seems stupid), but to some extent this makes me feel a bit less lonely.
I shut the door and sat with my knees to my chest and felt heavy. Every sound was an intrusion of my space. The alienation was terrifyingly familiar and I longed for a world that understood my way of thinking, my illogical obtrusions.
I ached for that world, wishing that someone would grab my shoulders and shake me, would hit me in the face, waking me up and awarding me acceptance. I would no longer feel like a fly on the wall, not listening and watching others but landing on their skin, vomiting a little on their pores, while they slapped me away like an insignificant annoyance that altered their perception in such subtle ways they could not even acknowledge or comprehend it.
Always the one in the Venus flytrap, scrambling to get away with just a taste of the nectar but dragged back under by the entrapment of its arms.
I miss the way the wind used to feel on my face. It was icy water splashing over me and I would breathe it in and it would consume me. It would smell so familiar, like blossom trees and freshly turned earth, like pine trees and erasers. It felt like sequins and needles and glittering lights and the unknown. It made my mind leap hurdles and fall into the grass, like grazed knees and the mushroom fairy homes that I longed to crawl into. Now all I have is hands on hips and spit in my face and hard faces that can no longer swell up with tears.
I recall filling myself up with that wind and feeling invincible. I could smile and complete every task with ease and joy. Joy. That’s what I miss. I want back those easy days when my chest swelled with happiness and you could just laugh, we would just laugh for no reason and I’d jump in the puddles and try and climb the trees, which was impossible, because height is always a disadvantage. I miss diving into the swimming pool and feeling the pull of water on my face as I fled through it, structure, technique, peace. Silence.
Where do I fit? A confused, sort of, one time sex worker…
I have been studying politics for a long time, but more recently my focus has been on women involved in the sex industry. My reason is because women have been missing from most of international relations discourse. Societal structures were created using outdated and unnecessary binary conceptions of masculinity and femininity, and in reality, nowhere in the world do women share equal economic and social rights with men (thanks Jacqui True for the phrasing here). Men have had a monopoly on resources and power for far too long.
My understanding of the sex industry is that it is in some ways a product of global issues such as poverty, health, education, economic equality, and so on, which in turn is related to gender biases, leading also to sexual violence. Without addressing the gender-dimensions of these issues, I feel policies and programs designed to address them, fail to achieve significant change in these areas. For me, a woman’s capacity to participate politically, socially, and economically is dangerously compromised by sexual violence. Sexual violence has lasting effects both during conflict and in peace times. The sex industry both sustains unequal relationships between women and men, and has a violent side to it, but also provides economic avenues for women, and has a non-violent side to it.
Of course this sounds like a classic essay by a non-sex worker, talking about women in the sex industry. Something I’ve always found difficult in my research is the struggle to balance not speaking on behalf of anyone’s experiences while also using my position of privilege to speak and educate others: a very tricky line to walk. But a big struggle for me in my research has been a loud voice from a group of sex workers telling me I can’t speak about them; I can only listen to them. Some even say if you’re not a sex worker, then you shouldn’t write about it at all. From what I could tell, this made a lot of sense. A marginalized group of people that have been stigmatized for centuries wouldn’t want some arrogant feminist coming along and saying she knows what’s really up in the world of sex work.
But then one day I realised why, in this understanding, I still felt conflicted. I could never reconcile my positions on sex work, the sex industry, women’s rights as individuals or collective rights and so forth. I had always blamed it on my mother, laughing it off as her ‘old-school radical feminist brainwashing of me when I was a kid’. Surely that’s why I sometimes found it hard to swallow the extremely pro-individual rights, choice feminism, western privileged and educated sex workers’ arguments? Then I realized that it was related to something deeper then what I had read and heard. It was coming from an experience that happened to me when I was 18, something that, in retrospect, I wish had never been… that something was technically sex work. It’s strange how for so long I had never even conceptualised what I had done as participating in the sex industry. However after all my studying and all my conversations I realised that I am one of them. I am a woman who participated in the sex industry due to economic push factors. Did this mean I could now speak about the sex industry and sex workers without watching my every step?
Then I thought, where do women fit who are not full service or direct-contact sex workers, but are involved in the porn side of the sex industry? Pondering further about the permanent nature of my experience of the sex industry… ie. Those photos are out there for the world forever, with no way of taking them back… and although it was only a short-lived career, does that mean my minimal experiences do not weigh into the conversation with other sex workers? I’ve always been afraid, in forums and with groups of friends, of saying what I think about an issue if it’s in any way dissenting of sex work. I’ve always felt that they wouldn’t consider my experience as legitimate sex work, and they’d silence me, just as they had been in the past. This is a tough one to bring up, but I think there is a pretty bold hierarchy within the sex worker community… well at least within what and whom I know of it…
My irreconcilable feelings on everything started to make sense, because my experience was bad. Pure exploitation. An uninformed young, and barely legal, teenager, lacking money for rent, now posted all over numerous sites, hundreds of photos for one payment of fuck-all cash. No. This does not agree with me. My older self is FURIOUS. Furious that the industry even exists in the first place, furious at myself for being so thoughtless, furious that this company thought it was ok to pay so little for so much, and furious that no one stopped me to ask me if I had really thought about it…
But then… I wonder… if community attitudes towards women in the sex industry were different, if the negative stigma that limits women’s lives because of their work didn’t exist… maybe I wouldn’t be so angry that I had been part of the sex industry…Maybe…
My thoughts and hopes for the new Project Respect blog.
This blog will be a place where women in the sex industry can make their voices heard, with all their strength, subtlety, humour and humanity, and somewhere for people outside the sex industry to listen to voices of women that are too often silenced, erased, discounted, distorted.
The sex industry relies on stories to sell sex – stories the industry tells men, stories men tell themselves – and too often the stories told to make money are confused with the full story of women’s lives. The media reflects these half-truths, half-lies, accepting a less confronting, less human projection of the many, diverse women in the sex industry.
Women’s lives are crushed into a single, safe stereotype - the desperate junky, say, or the happy hooker. Who lives so one-dimensional a life that she can be compressed down to one sapless image? This blog aims to reflect the complexity of life for women in the sex industry, the diversity of views, the passionate beliefs, the changing ideas each person has, the dynamism and authority that every person brings to understanding their own life.
We want to hear about the good, the bad, and the puzzling: the best time you’ve every had in sex industry, the person you’ll never forget, the wrongs that make you passionate about changing them, the dilemmas you can’t talk to other people about, the tips for other women that you hope will make their life easier.
Which is not to say that all the writing will be about the sex industry. One of the damaging erasures about women in the sex industry is of their life, and importance, beyond the minutes they spend having sex with a customer. It should be self-evident that women are more than what they do for money, but too often this is not the case. Here, women will write – and draw and photograph - about what is important to them, drawing on the full richness of the world they are part of.
Women here won’t always agree with each other, or, indeed, with the views of people at Project Respect. We welcome a wide range of views and thoughts. Until the great diversity of views of women in the sex industry are commonly heard elsewhere, we hope this can be a place where women can explore their ideas, share their thoughts, and help build a more realistic understanding of the range of views and experiences of women in the sex industry.
We’ll have other people speaking too – Project Respect volunteers and members, men reflecting on how they see the sex industry, other interesting writers. This will be an experimental process – it will evolve over time. But at its heart, this will be a space for women who have been in the sex industry to talk about what matters to them.
We hope you’ll join us, in writing and reading, speaking and listening, in create space for women to tell their truths, and be heard.
Founding Director, Project Respect